Strictly speaking, tweed is a fabric with a diagonal weave, whose irregular appearance derived from the weaving of two or three weft* threads instead of just one.
The word “tweed” is a bastardization of “tweel,” the Scottish form of “twill.” Also of note: The River Tweed, which separates Scotland from England, was a major textile centers of the 19th Century.
*(The weft is the horizontal threads that are woven through the loom on the shuttle. The vertical threads through which they are woven are called the warp.)
The Major Houses of Tweed
Harris tweed is a special variety made famous by the Dowager Countess of Dunmore, who in the late 1840s took a loosely-knit group of cottage-industry weavers (spread out among the islands of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barr, in the Outer Hebrides) and sought to improve the quality and regularity of production, resulting in a wider market for their wares in London. The label Harris Tweed guaranteed that the cloth was made from pure virgin wool, carded, woven, spun, and hand-dyed with plant dyes by the inhabitants of those islands. Harris Tweed became a registered trademark in 1909 and the logo, a globe, is taken from the Dunmore family crest. Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world governed by its own Act of Parliament.
Donegal tweed is made primarily by Magee, a historic concern founded in Donegal Town, Ulster, Ireland. Magee was founded in 1866 as a drapery shop; in the 1870s, it began selling local Irish tweeds, flecked with colors that derived from local dyes.
Linton tweed is made in England by the Linton company, founded in 1912 by Scotsman William Linton in the Caldewgate area of Carlisle, a small city situated close to the Scottish border and near the famous Lake District. Initially Linton employed two salesmen with ponies and traps who travelled the Lake District buying wool and selling woollen suit lengths. Thanks to an early introduction to Coco Chanel in the 1920s, Linton grew to be a major supplier of tweed to womenswear designers over the course of the 20th century, including Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Courreges, Balmain, YSL, and later, Marc Jacobs and Victoria Beckham.
Tweed On Screen
Recent Dispatches From The Annals Of Tweed
2004. Nike rolls out a line of Harris Tweed trainers, propping up faltering Harris Tweed sales, 2004.
2009. Tweed-dressed bike outings beginning in San Francisco, organized by gentlemanly bikers who refuse Spandex.
2010. New version of the classic English TV show “Dr Who” outfits star in Harris Tweeds, spurs Harris revival among Brits.
2010. With a little help from Martin Greenfield Clothiers, Steve Buscemi managed to look remarkably sharp on Boardwalk Empire.
Hallmarks of a Good Tweed Suit:
The Harris Tweed label. Not to play favorites, but Dries Van Noten and Rag & Bone* use these guys for a reason. They’ve been making the stuff for over a century, and they’re still the gold standard.
A little heft. Tweed is an outdoor-friendly fabric: It’s warm and it’s water-resistant. Sturdiness is practically in its DNA (see the 3 weft strands for one warp).
A slightly rough feel (or “hand” as they say in the business). As with heft, above, you need to feel all those threads that went into making it when you touch it. It should be supple, but you should be able to feel its weave. If it feels or looks printed, reject it out of hand.
*Other modern masters include Alexander McQueen, Freeman’s Sporting Club, Brooks Brothers, and Billy Reid.